What Is Victory?

President Bush says we must achieve victory in Iraq. What is "victory?" The dictionary defines it as defeating an enemy or an opponent. Under this definition, the problem becomes simply knowing what it means to defeat the enemy.

Consider history. We were certainly victorious in World War II; both Germany and Japan surrendered to our troops. World War I, on the other hand, ended in an armistice, a truce to discuss peace. The Allied Powers largely dictated the Versailles Treaty that followed. Most people would consider that a victory. In contrast, the Korean War ended with an armistice as well, but no peace treaty followed. Technically the United States, together with South Korea, is still at war with North Korea. No victory there.

The war in Vietnam was equally ambiguous. During 1971, while the U.S. was negotiating with the North, it was withdrawing American troops. By 1972, virtually all combat soldiers were out of the area, and in January 1973, a peace accord with North Vietnam was signed. The U.S promised the South aid and air support; but, with the burgeoning Watergate scandal, bombing of the North became impossible and aid was sharply cut. As we know, Congress eliminated all military aid in 1974; at the end of April of that year, Saigon fell to the North, ending the war. Certainly, that was no victory.

Many wars do not result in unambiguous victory for one side or the other. Fatigue, a recognition that the cost of total victory is too high, or the prospect of endless conflict leads the players to agree on a cease-fire. Just last month, Israel realized that the cost of its invasion of Lebanon was more than it had bargained for and agreed to a cessation of hostilities. Initially, the Jewish state had announced its aim as freeing the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah, disarming that organization, and removing it from a position in which it could threaten Israel. It achieved none of those aims but still declared victory. Following that lead, President George W. Bush could declare victory in Iraq. Whether one wishes to view Israel or the United States as a victor depends on whether the glass is half full or half empty.

The president has often contended that we must continue the fight until we have achieved victory in the war on terror. However, since we are fighting insurgents, terrorists, and other ad hoc groups, how will be know when we have achieved victory? Unlike World War II, there will be no one to surrender to us. Even if Osama bin Laden were to surrender, an impossibility, it would not mean victory in the war on terrorism. Others could and would take up the role of attacking the West. Unlike all the other wars and conflicts described above, there is no way to win the war on terrorism except by converting those who hate the West to tolerance, a task not easily achieved by shooting at or bombing them.

Last week in Salt Lake City, President Bush said, “The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq, so America will not leave until victory is achieved.” If we cannot have victory in the war on terror, can we at least achieve victory in Iraq? It is difficult to see what that would mean. There is no one who could, by surrendering, stop the killing.

It is conceivable, although unlikely, that the government of Iraq could dampen the burgeoning civil war and stop the insurgency. That would permit the president to claim victory. The White House is predicting and counting on this outcome.

Civil strife in Iraq, however, is growing, not diminishing. Private militias are playing a greater role in Iraqi life than ever before. Even if force could stop the violence, the country would still be headed toward disintegration. The Kurdish north has ordered Iraqi flags to be taken down and Kurdish flags flown. It has asserted the right to issue drilling permits to oil companies. It claims Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city consisting of Arabs – some Sunni and some Shia – Turkmens, and, of course, Kurds. Even if the fighting were suppressed, conflict over Kirkuk and Kurdish autonomy would be likely to re-ignite the killing.

In the south, many Shias want the autonomy that the Kurds have in the north. The Sunnis will oppose this strongly, if for no other reason than that it will leave them without any oil or revenue from oil. Notwithstanding their opposition, fragmentation of Iraq seems the most likely outcome.

Given this situation, do we "stay the course" as George W. Bush urges, "cut and run" as Gen. William E. Odom recommends, or put a timetable on our stay and start to phase out our troops, as many Democrats recommend?

Currently, we are losing about two soldiers a day, plus another 20 wounded. If we stay another year, we can estimate that over 700 additional Americans will die, and 7,000 others will be wounded and/or suffer psychological trauma. Iraqis are dying at a much higher rate, between 50 and 100 a day, or between 18,000 and 36,000 a year. If we follow the recommendations of phasing out our stay and ending it by the start of 2008, we will still lose another 1,000 soldiers.

On the other hand, if we follow the president’s policy, we can expect to see, by the end of his term, about 1,800 more soldiers killed and perhaps as many as 20,000 mutilated. In addition, there will be close to 100,000 more Iraqi deaths. Current policies in Iraq are also decimating our military. The army has had to lower its standards, and, for the first time in years, the Defense Department has had to call up Marines from the Individual Ready Reserve. To staff our Army and Marines adequately, the U.S. may have to resort to the draft.

Is it worth it? We cannot expect that the Iraqi government in that short time will get its act together sufficiently to put down the violence and prevent a civil war. As indicated above, just settling Kirkuk may be impossible, and it will certainly take a long time to work out any solution.

The last century has witnessed a large number of insurgencies. Almost without exception, they have been bloody, taken a long time to resolve, and, more often than not, resulted in a loss by the governing power. Algeria and the French (eight years), the Philippines and the United States (14 years), Northern Ireland and the British (about 30 years), and the Basques and the Spanish national government (about 40 years) are examples of attempts by some groups to overthrow or throw out the existing rulers.

It seems likely, therefore, that victory in Iraq, that is, a stable Iraqi government ruled by Shias, would take 10 or more years to accomplish. The cost over the next 10 years would be about 7,000 more American deaths and around 75,000 additional casualties. Who believes that victory is worth the grief of the parents, siblings, husbands, wives, and children of those who will die and those who will be maimed or devastated for life?